|ESPN.com: Baseball||[Print without images]|
The Washington Nationals have a franchise pillar in Ryan Zimmerman, a budding superstar in Bryce Harper, a nine-figure outfielder in Jayson Werth, a 25-homer shortstop in Ian Desmond and several other threats up and down the batting order. But whenever general manager Mike Rizzo outlines his plan for the organization, the phrase "power arms" is prominent in the conversation. Rizzo's eyes spin like pinwheels when he sees a young pitcher light up a radar gun, and he has put the Nationals in position to contend for the long haul because he has been adept at collecting that type of pitcher.
The Nationals, in this respect, are what the New York Mets aspire to be when they grow up.
The two franchises are separated by 1½ games in the National League East and a world of expectations, but nothing bridges the gap like a 95 mph fastball and a wipeout slider. New York's Matt Harvey will bring those weapons and lots of industry buzz to the mound Friday night at Citi Field when he faces Stephen Strasburg in a pitching matchup that has "big walk-up crowd" written all over it.
|Matt Harvey, 24, is 3-0 with a 0.82 ERA in three starts for the Mets this season. He took a no-hitter into the seventh inning in his April 13 start at Minnesota.|
Strasburg, we all know about. The wraps are off 2½ years after Tommy John surgery, and Strasburg elicited his share of early Cy Young support in the Grapefruit League. He is 1-2 with a 2.95 ERA through three starts while focusing less on strikeouts and more on getting maximum efficiency from the pitches he's allotted. Although Ross Detwiler and Jordan Zimmermann have been the best pitchers on the Washington staff thus far, Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez remain the marquee attractions in the Nationals' rotation.
Harvey, meanwhile, enhances his stature as baseball's Next Big Thing with each appearance. He went 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA last week and carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning against the Twins to win the NL Player of the Week award. He has a 0.55 WHIP and a batting average against of .088 in his first three starts.
Tributes keep rolling in. A National League scout describes Harvey's slider as "Steve Carlton-esque," and Dwight Gooden and David Price have offered gushing praise on Twitter. Harvey versus Strasburg is about as pulse-quickening as it gets for a matchup of 25-and-under starters that doesn't include Clayton Kershaw.
"This is kind of Ali-Frazier," Scott Boras, the agent for both pitchers, says. "Or maybe we need a more modern-day reference: It's Yahoo! versus Google."
Strasburg, Harper & Co. have quickly changed the narrative in Washington, where the mood was grim after consecutive 59-win seasons in 2008-09. The Mets, in contrast, have been battered and on the defensive since Carlos Beltran took that called third strike against Adam Wainwright to end the 2006 National League Championship Series. Throw Bernie Madoff's duplicity, Ryan Church's concussion, Luis Castillo's dropped pop fly against the Yankees, Oliver Perez's career meltdown, Johan Santana's shoulder problems and Jason Bay's tattered psyche into a blender, and it makes for a never-ending siege of negativity.
But the Mets have reason to hope a new wave of young pitching can change the storyline in Flushing Meadows. The San Francisco Giants won world championships in 2010 and 2012 with lineups that ranked ninth and sixth in the National League, respectively, in runs scored. As the Mets prepare to shed more than $50 million in payroll when Santana, Bay and Frank Francisco come off the books and management finally has some flexibility to upgrade the offense, people in the organization are starting to think, "Why not us?"
Indeed, when David Wright signed his new contract extension in December, the Mets made their organizational pitching surplus part of the sales pitch. Wright wasn't willing to resign himself to eight years in the baseball wilderness, even for $138 million, so he sat down with general manager Sandy Alderson and they assessed the talent and the timetables for numerous players in the pipeline.
"You look at the Giants and what they've been able to do with young power arms and the starting pitching," Wright says. "You look at the Nationals, how they've turned it around so quickly, and it started with the young arms. That's kind of how I envision us building this team -- with the young pitching."
If the young pitchers spark a renaissance in New York, it won't be the first time. Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Gary Gentry helped the franchise shed its sad-sack reputation in the late 1960s, and Gooden, Ron Darling and Sid Fernandez made a group statement in the mid-1980s. Conversely, the injuries and setbacks incurred by the "Generation K" contingent of Paul Wilson, Bill Pulsipher and Jason Isringhausen put a major crimp in the organizational game plan in the 1990s.
When a young Mets starter does something impressive now, the Elias Sports Bureau and Mets PR maven Jay Horwitz instinctively summons some glossy name from the archives. For example, Harvey's 95 strikeouts are the third-highest total ever for a Mets pitcher through 13 starts. He trails only Nolan Ryan (103) and Gooden (96).
Harvey isn't the only pitcher contributing to the enthusiasm at Citi Field. It remains to be seen if lefty Jonathon Niese, 26, has 200 victories or a smorgasbord of postseason triumphs in his future. But when the Mets look at his businesslike demeanor, cut fastball and ability to throw strikes consistently at the knees or below, they see flashes of a young Andy Pettitte.
"He's lost in the market here," catcher John Buck says. "He had Johan in front of him, and now he's got a bunch of young pitchers with a lot of hype coming in. That's exciting and new and what people want to hear about. But he's gotten increasingly better, and now he's turning the corner to be that organizational No. 1 starter who can set the tone for everybody."
While Niese lacks the "wow" factor, some other Mets pitchers have it in abundance. Zack Wheeler, who came over from San Francisco in the Beltran trade in July 2011, began this season in Triple-A Las Vegas, where he's learning to deal with energy-sapping heat, light air and launching pads in the Pacific Coast League. In three starts with the 51s, Wheeler is 0-1 with a 3.86 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 14 innings.
Wheeler has the luxury of apprenticing with Travis d'Arnaud, the Mets' catcher of the future. They could both join the Mets this season, although d'Arnaud's progress has been stalled by a broken foot. In February, ESPN.com's Keith Law ranked them 13th and 14th on his list of baseball's top 100 prospects.
In its 2013 Prospect Handbook, Baseball America ranked nine pitchers among the Mets' top 12 prospects. The list, in order of appearance, includes Wheeler, Luis Mateo, Rafael Montero, Michael Fulmer, Jeurys Familia, Domingo Tapia, Cory Mazzoni, Jake DeGrom and Hansel Robles.
That group does not include Noah Syndergaard, the young right-hander acquired from Toronto as part of the R.A. Dickey trade in December. Syndergaard has a dominant fastball, a plus changeup and an evolving breaking pitch that could help determine his success in the big leagues. At 6-foot-6, 240 pounds, he is big enough to blot out the sun. Cue the Josh Johnson comparisons.
"Everybody is talking about the young pitching," Harvey says. "Like I said in spring training, this is 2013 and we're playing now. I can never look past my next start, because I won't be mentally prepared, and I'll already have beaten myself. But in the back of our minds, I think we all know it could be something special."
Harvey, the Mets' would-be Justin Verlander, is living a dream that took shape during his boyhood in Mystic, Conn., site of the Julia Roberts 1988 star vehicle "Mystic Pizza." He ventured to the city enough times to see baseball games and Broadway shows that New York was never an intimidating or overwhelming place in his eyes.
"I was used to seeing the tall buildings and taking a train into the city to go to Shea Stadium and Yankee Stadium," Harvey says. "Moving to the city was something I always dreamed of doing, regardless of baseball."
In 2007, North Carolina recruited Harvey, Rick Porcello and Madison Bumgarner for its starting rotation, but Harvey's fellow high schoolers both opted to turn pro as first-round picks. In hindsight, he remembers his UNC days as a pivotal and formative experience. The Tar Heels made it to the College World Series twice, so Harvey got a taste of pressure situations at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb., before the Mets picked him seventh overall in the 2010 draft.
|In his major league debut against the Diamondbacks last July, Harvey recorded 11 strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings.|
Harvey showed promise in the minor leagues, but most scouting reports projected him as a No. 2 or 3 starter. The rapid improvement of his slider and changeup quickly changed that perception, but Harvey's development entailed more than simply upgrading his repertoire. At times, he seemed to pace himself in the minor leagues, and his velocity reflected it. If you didn't know better, you might think he was bored.
"The lesson to me is that you don't know what this arena is going to do for a player," Mets assistant general manager John Ricco says. "Some guys raise their game here, and some guys can't. With Matt, he's brought his A-game every time out at this level of competition. In the minors, on a smaller stage, maybe you feel like you can get guys out without your best stuff. Here, he's bringing it, and his best is pretty good."
People throughout the Mets organization rave about Harvey's intangibles. He is intense in his approach and diligent in his preparation, yet self-aware enough to take advice and incorporate it into his game.
An episode in Port St. Lucie, Fla., in spring training helps substantiate the point: Harvey was a little too over-amped one day and kept throwing his fastball up and out of the strike zone, so Buck suggested he take a deep breath, back off a little bit and focus on his off-speed pitches. Harvey obliged and quickly regained his touch. When Harvey encountered the same issue in a recent start against Philadelphia, he drew on that experience in Florida. He immediately got back in sync and dominated the Phillies for seven innings.
Buck, a former Kansas City Royal, says Harvey reminds him of Zack Greinke because of his ability to throw both his two-seamer and four-seamer for strikes. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire also invoked Greinke's name after Harvey's no-hit bid last week. And Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel topped them all when he mentioned Harvey in the same sentence with Tom Seaver, because they're both practitioners of the "drop-and-drive" school of pitching.
The foundation for success lies in the attitude. Harvey takes the mound and, with all due respect to the hitters, gives the impression that he owns the place. There are some things you just can't teach.
"He's embraced the spotlight and embraced the stage," Wright says. "He welcomes it. It's important for a young starting pitcher to have the mentality, 'I'm better than you.' It's not so much cockiness as an extreme confidence. He has that [mentality] where he believes he can go out there and dominate you. And more often than not, he does."
Harvey generally defers to Buck's game-calling acumen, but if he's convinced a particular pitch will be most effective in a certain situation, he will shake his head "no" and stand his ground.
"[Buck]'s the one who gets the view of the hitter," Harvey says. "If I shake him off and really believe a pitch might work or it feels right for me at that time, it's once or twice or, at most, three times a game. But if he really believes in it, I have to recommit to that pitch. That's my motto -- fighting for every pitch I throw and having a purpose for every pitch."
Harvey hasn't generated any Strasburg comparisons yet, but the two pitchers have some things in common. While Strasburg won a National League Silver Slugger Award last season, Harvey also takes pride in his hitting and all-around game. As the big confrontation approaches, Boras has teased both pitchers about who will have a bigger night at the plate.
Harvey developed an appreciation for the game from his father, Ed, a longtime coach at Fitch High School in Groton, Conn. Strasburg grew up as both a player and a person in three years under Tony Gwynn at San Diego State, where he lost 30 pounds and found a killer instinct. Harvey, similarly, improved his conditioning in Chapel Hill and fought through numerous bouts of bad mechanics and self-doubt.
"They both gained a dominance in the college environment that they did not possess when they were freshmen," Boras says. "They both had to really fight through some difficult moments. They rose to the occasion and earned their way."
Strasburg and Harvey -- or Harvey and Strasburg, if you prefer -- have earned the right to take the mound in a game that promises to be special for connoisseurs of great young pitching. The calendar says it's just another tilt in April. The dueling fastballs and beleaguered looks on hitters' faces tell you it's so much more.